Skoll World Forum: Where Filmmaking Meets Changemaking

Tabitha Jackson and Sonita Alizadeh speak at the Opening Plenary. Photo courtesy of Skoll Foundation.

Anne Lai

On a morning walk from our hotel to the University of Oxford’s Said Business School, you can take a scenic path along the river where a number of rowing teams cut through the water as they train. The primary sport for the pedestrian is to avoid being hit by coaches peddling bikes on the same narrow dirt path, observing and occasionally shouting out words of instruction to their crew in the water. It’s a particularly apt illustration of collaboration and teamwork – the idea of encouraging someone to be just a little bit better, a little bit stronger.

The Sundance team in Oxford.

While you don’t necessarily think of independent filmmaking as a sport, it’s most definitely a collaborative endeavor – not only within one film project but also often across filmmakers on different projects. Such is the nature of the Sundance contingent of filmmaking artists who spent a week in Oxford, England as part of the Skoll World Forum. We had a world class team this year – Kat Cizek, Howard Gertler, Leah Mahan, Nicole Newnham, Jerry Rothwell, Michele Stephenson, Lynette Wallworth – along with Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam, Sundance consultant Wendy Levy, and staff comprising Richard Perez, Scarlett Robertson and led by Documentary Film Program Director Tabitha Jackson.

The Skoll World Forum is an annual gathering of social entrepreneurs from around the world who lead amazing endeavors tackling such diverse and crucial issues as child trafficking to equal education opportunities, from global health to social justice, and from poverty to…well, you get the idea. Big ideas, big actions, weighty stuff. These are thought leaders, as well as nimble changemakers, who are on the ground implementing extraordinarily smart ideas.

Where does Sundance Institute come into this? For the past number of years, the Documentary Film Program has built an amazing program with the Skoll Foundation’s Sandy Herz to inject awareness of storytelling in the realm of social entrepreneurship and to spark potential collaborations across Sundance-supported documentary filmmakers and entrepreneurial organizations. I was privileged to join my Documentary Film Program colleagues last year to peek in from the (fiction) Feature Film Program realm. Could this work translate across to the fiction world, as well? This year, we invited producer Howard Gertler, whose work spans both fiction (John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus) and documentary, to join a larger group of documentary filmmakers.

In an intimate opening dinner with a handful of Skoll-awarded social entrepreneurs, Howard presented a trailer for his Academy Award-nominated documentary How To Survive A Plague (directed by David France) and talked about why he makes the films he does. Often sparked by themes and ideas that mean something to him, Howard spoke simply about character and story. Does this character – whether real life or fictional – take us on an unexpected journey? Is there a transformation from beginning to end? And do we feel for him or her and understand what makes them flawed and human? Is there a special way into the story? What became evident was that fiction storytelling isn’t so far from documentary – it’s a difference of, as Howard pointed out, format. And what format might best serve a particular story really depends on that particular artist.

“How to Survive a Plague”

Over the next few days, a series of one-on-one meetings between the Sundance filmmakers and social entrepreneurs yielded some individual discoveries. Could our filmmakers help tease out and excavate stories and characters that the entrepreneurs may want to pursue in illuminating the issues they care about? Could the entrepreneurs put aside their marketing and fundraising heads, for just a moment, and look at what stories within their own work inspire and move them? In a field where each issue is incredibly urgent and crucial, how might an entrepreneur tap into empathy and imagination through the specificity of character, rather than through the generality of an issue?

As was evident in spending time at the Forum and meeting dozens of different social entrepreneurs, each person was driven and passionate about what they are doing. It’s heady stuff to be in that atmosphere. For me, that’s not so different from being around great independent filmmakers, who thrive in the presence of other artists and are deeply drawn towards a medium that can transcend and share human emotion. As filmmaker Lynette Wallworth said during a panel about empathetic storytelling, her task as an artist is “to draw attention to the thing that matters that no one sees.”

In the final days of the Forum, as our contingent wrapped up formal meetings with social entrepreneurs and had a chance to attend panels and presentations on myriad topics, I saw that beautiful thing that happens when a bunch of filmmakers spend time around each other. They had already tag-teamed on their meetings with entrepreneurs, helping each subsequent meeting deepen the work already in place. The investment each of them made to prepare for each meeting was astonishing. And now, outside of that space, the filmmakers spontaneously shared ideas with each other, sparked new friendships and possible collaborations, and bonded over challenges inherent to the current independent film space. It reminds me that independent filmmakers are a group of changemakers in their own right. Whether told through humor, drama, and even virtual reality, the work these filmmakers create is transformative. This is independent storytelling at its best. And what’s more powerful than that?

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